OPINION: A crisis the ANC should not waste
On Monday, the rand sank to its lowest ever level against the US dollar. As this was happening, union leaders, factory owners and the government were meeting to try to save jobs in the steel sector. Our mining sector is in the doldrums since the platinum price has tanked. At the same time, the African National Congress (ANC) is planning its national general council, amid suggestions that it could be about to change its policy. As all of the indicators head south, this is still a terrible crisis to waste.
There can be no doubt that our economy is slowing, for many reasons. Yes, China, and the global near-panic its slowdown has created, is definitely one of them. But our local woes, like Eskom, are a much bigger reason. An even bigger problem is that we simply have not managed to create jobs in a meaningful way since 1994. While the ANC has dramatically improved the lives of millions of people, it has not been able to get jobs for many of them, and the sustainable wellbeing that comes with employment. As a result, the contributions made by the mining and manufacturing sectors are huge. And the people who have jobs in these sectors have many people depending on them.
In a way, one of the reasons for this has been what many analysts have suggested is a lack of proper policy direction. Some refer to 'analysis paralysis', others to the fact that the ANC is simply a broad church, that with both Cyril Ramaphosa and Jeremy Cronin in the room, it must surely be impossible to pick a well-defined economic direction and go there.
However, with the current crisis threatening to metastasise into a full-blown recession, it looks as if it is going to be harder and harder for the ANC to put this kind of politically difficult decision off for much longer. In democracies around the world, more jobs, and a growing economy, mean more votes. At the same time, the party itself has realised that the old ties of the liberation days, and the idea of being able to rely on people to vote a certain way just because of their life under apartheid, are loosening their grip. All of this means it is crucial for the party to find a solution for the rapidly ailing economy.
In the past, those who would like to move in a more free-market direction, have always had the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to contend with. However, a small window of opportunity is opening up here. Those who would like to make this argument now have the perfect opportunity to point to the SACP people in the room, especially the economic cluster's Rob Davies and Ebrahim Patel, to stand up and then tell everyone how (un)successful they've been so far. They could ask them to point to the jobs they've created, and wonder aloud how in the six and a bit years they've occupied their positions, they have not been able to do much for the jobless in the country.
Had this happened in the past, those SACP cadres would not be alone: Cosatu delegates to the national general council (NGC) would have stood up in solidarity with them and defended them, vociferously. The threat would not have been the numbers in the meeting, but the contribution Cosatu makes to the alliance as a whole. But Cosatu is not what it was. The person standing up would not be Zwelinzima Vavi, but S'dumo Dlamini. A man who, shall we say, does not appear to be quite as critical of President Jacob Zuma, or his policies.
All in all, the Left of the ANC probably has not been quite as weak in many years. And there's a good reason for that: the pesky thing called reality is showing, daily, that the ideology-based policies have not worked.
Just to add a little spice to this mixture, we should not forget that there are those in the ANC who have always suggested we look East, to China, for guidance. That argument might not get them very far after this latest crisis.
At this point, we must also remember that the party has already given a strong hint that it is ready to move to the Right. In an Alliance declaration just two months ago, it said the resourcefulness of communities may have been "weakened by the message that the state will deliver". That seemed to be an indication it was thinking of a shift, particularly considering that both Cosatu and the SACP would have signed off on that statement.
But, interestingly, that shift does not appear to have found its way into the ANC's discussion documents prepared for the NGC. There is an awful lot about creating black industrialists (you need electricity to do that), the beneficiation of minerals (you need electricity to do that) and how important it is to help the manufacturing sector (you need electricity to do that too), but nothing that resonates strongly with that comment from the Alliance declaration. It's hard to know why it would be in one public document and not the other. Was it just a brain-fart during the Alliance summit, was there too much opposition in the Economic Transformation Commission, or did someone somewhere think it was too hot a potato to put in the document at this moment in politics?
It's even possible that some mad combination of all of the above was responsible. Those who are Machiavellian in nature (or have just covered enough ANC conferences in their time) may think it was withdrawn because it is going to be sprung on delegates at the NGC itself. After all, that has happened before, Zuma started the 2012 Mangaung conference by basically telling the party to vote through the National Development Plan. This they duly did, before it was torn apart in the implementation stage.
The economy is not going to grow on its own without something changing. As Frans Cronje at the Institution of Race Relations has pointed out, one of the options for the ANC, and possibly its best option, is to move policy rightwards, in order to simply create more jobs.
All the other options pretty much lead to dead ends:
- It could stay on this path and watch the economy implode slowly;
- Go more to the Left and even fast-forward the process of implosion;
- Try to crack down on a population already showing signs of frustration; or,
- Face down the ideologues who can't accept that their ideology is failing and usher in an era of realism.
I don't know about you, but it seems to me that the last option is by far the best, the cheapest and simplest of them all.
It seems this crisis is arriving at an opportune time for the ANC; it is in a good position to actually use it for the good of the country. But does it have the leadership, the energy, and the sheer guts to do so?
If the leadership were to think in the strategic terms, there should be no doubt, or hesitancy, in making decisions that would finally put South Africa on the growth path. But, as we know in today's politics, way too many decisions are made purely with tactical gains in mind. Still, it would be good if the political leaders would remember again: It's the economy, Stupid.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes